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Turkey’s Shift in its Axis and the West’s Response: Analyzing the Dynamics of Changing Relations”

Why Is There No Change on the Western Front?

Undoubtedly, one of the foremost questions that comes to mind for many regarding the Turkish regime is why the West hasn’t criticized it sufficiently. After all, Turkey, with its claim to be located in one of the most significant geopolitical positions in the world, has clearly undergone a serious shift in its axis. How did the Western world “permit” this to happen?

This is an important question that requires analysis.

It’s possible to approach the issue from various angles!

Let’s begin with the basic knowledge of International Relations 101: States act according to their interests. In international relations, political decisions are not made based on humanitarian emotions. The states that make up the Western world approach events and phenomena from their own perspectives, which correspond to the realities of the international system, and primarily create policies considering their own interests. In this system, political actions are not driven by considering another state’s interests, for the sake of goodwill or ethical concerns.

Another significant point in the context of interests is the non-constancy of any interest. The interests of the 1980s or 1990s are not the same as the interests dictated by the requirements of the year 2023. In other words, interests are variable, and thus the interests that determine foreign policy behavior for a certain period, as a determinant of global and regional changes, can change over time.

The above analysis can explain the changes in the Western approach to Turkey’s policies within a narrow framework. However, apart from the new interest formulations triggered by global and regional developments, within the context of Turkey itself, the preferences of Turkey’s political decision-makers inevitably influence the policies of Western countries towards Turkey.

Looking at Turkish foreign policy from 1923 to 2016, one of the most striking features is the efforts to conduct Western-oriented reforms and institutionalize cooperation with Western countries. Starting from the Tanzimat era, the Ottoman Empire began the process of Westernization at an institutional level. Taking Western institutions as a model, it went through an intense reform process. This legacy continued after the proclamation of the Republic, and even intensified, becoming the foundation of the modern Turkish state’s main structure.

After World War II, Turkey integrated with the newly established global system. Within this framework, a transition to a multi-party democracy was made, membership in the Council of Europe was achieved, and the decision to join NATO was taken. Turkey assumed this role on its own. No external power (especially the West) forced Turkey into this foreign policy choice. Military, strategic, economic, and political cooperation with the West in the context of security policies protected Turkey from a possible Soviet invasion, stabilized and developed it, and increased its competitiveness.

This role and orientation (orientation or tendency) began to erode with the 1990s. The Soviet Union collapsed, communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell, and were replaced by states that embraced liberal democracy and market economies, willing to undertake EU reforms. During this period, the European Union (EU) undertook a historic mission and paved the way for Eastern European countries to integrate with the EU. In doing so, Turkey was relegated to the background.

The only reason for this was not just its geographical location on the periphery. Turkey’s inability to complete its democratization and the rule of law led to its complete exclusion from the EU agenda. In the years between 1990 and 2000, Turkey struggled. It leaned towards cooperation in the Black Sea, with post-Soviet successor states in Central Asia, and sought roles for itself in the Middle East. However, in the long run, it became clear that none of these orientations could compensate for or replace organic cooperation with the EU and the West.

In the 2000s, as a result of AKP’s democratizing policies, the EU made concrete decisions to materialize Turkey’s membership perspective. In 2005, the right to initiate full membership negotiations was granted, and the “membership crisis” that began in the 1990s was somewhat resolved. Many experts on Turkey, including myself, believed that Turkey would reach the level of “contemporary civilization,” which is the fundamental goal of the Republic, by integrating with the EU. Accordingly, reforms made in this direction and the ensuing economic and political stability would continue until the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the closure of the corruption files on December 17.

The role assigned to Turkey by the West did not change. What changed was the role Turkey assigned to itself. The West set the rules of the game from the beginning: enact reforms, put them into practice, democratize, improve your human rights record, enhance economic competitiveness, and raise living standards on a per capita basis, and increase your level of integration. Turkey fulfilled the requirements of this role for a while. However, due to internal decay, it first neglected and then abandoned this policy.

When the refugee issue emerged, Turkey’s agenda was largely devoid of EU membership. During the process known as the Arab Spring, Turkey pursued a quite adventurous and risky foreign policy. It plunged headlong into a Sunni-Islamist dream world. It completely let go of security safeguards and acted like a gambler at the gaming table. It lost its advantages as it headed for its intended goals.

Instead of establishing democratic regimes to replace destabilized Middle Eastern dictatorships, serious security vulnerabilities emerged for Turkey due to Islamist-Jihadist terrorist organizations, as seen in the example of Syria. Foremost among these was the refugee issue. The Islamist team governing Turkey did not perceive the horrors and dangers of the situation. They embarked on policies that were extremely naive, and equally dangerous, such as neo-Ottomanism, Islamism, and even neo-caliphate. Inevitably, sailing into these treacherous waters would lead to the ship crashing onto the rocks.

The refugee problem had exploded. The priorities of the EU had already changed. However, with the piling up of refugees on the EU’s borders, the EU’s perception of Turkey changed even further. According to this new perception, the EU burdened Turkey with the role of a buffer zone. While the Euros that constituted the cost of this were raining down on the Tayyip Erdoğan administration, Turkey had fallen from the European league to the Middle Eastern league. Of course, this was of no concern to Erdoğan and his cohort. Furthermore, due to Turkey’s new position, the EU completely lifted the pressure on human rights and democracy in Ankara. It formulated a new Turkey policy based on its own interests.

A truth that does not align with the general perception in Turkey is that the power of the West is not unlimited. Furthermore, the West does not waste its resources; it uses them carefully. After Turkey deviated from its orbit, it would be very expensive and irrational to put it back on course. Moreover, in the West, there were already serious doubts and concerns about Turkey’s accession to the EU. Projects related to Turkey, such as improvements in human rights, democratization, and stabilization, which are expensive and risky in the context of Turkey, were effectively shelved.

One of the things fetishized in Turkey is the exaggeration of its geopolitical importance. Evaluations like Turkey being at the center of the world, having the most vital geography like the Anatolian geography, led decision-makers in Turkey to make risky decisions. What was thought to be impossible eventually happened; Turkey drifted away from the West. Being in the position of the country that detains the second-highest number of journalists, being a country that launched terrorism investigations into 2 million people, and expelling 160,000 public employees overnight by declaring them traitors through lists published in the official gazette in the middle of the night—these dreadful policies were followed while the belief that cooperation with the West could continue surely did not exist among the politicians making these decisions. But interestingly, parties other than Erdoğan and the AKP did not stand up for the EU and NATO either. The anti-Western rhetoric grew stronger and stronger. Not even feeble objections were raised against the baseless lies, such as the claim that the US was the planner of the fake coup attempt on July 15.

Forced beauty doesn’t happen – there’s no demand for it! Is Turkey motivated to maintain relations with the West, which accounts for nearly eighty percent of its foreign trade, by being committed to Western values or by the rational requirement of its foreign trade relationships? Why should the West prioritize the democratization of Turkey, improvement in human rights, and economic stability?

Turkey reaps what it sowed. The West cannot democratize anyone by force. It cannot forcefully fix anyone’s human rights record. It cannot transform any narco-kleptocratic nepotistic autocracy into a stable market economy through force. These things need to have some resonance with the people. Does Turkey demand democracy, human rights, and economic stability? Why would foreign countries spend their financial resources and political energies on a country like Turkey? A country that doesn’t demand improvement from within cannot be saved by external dynamics.”

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.

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